The key to Mandarin and in my experience, learning any language, is that listening comprehension—understanding what is being said—is infinitely more important than being able to say it yourself. Listening comprehension is the quintessence of the marriage between lazy and bastard.
After spending an afternoon making a list of heinous things you’re bound to come across in your travels, I’ve decided that there’s nothing worse than sanctimony. There’s nothing worse than a sitting in a pub, minding your own business, and being accosted by a native Chinese speaker loaded up on the kind of courage you get after 12 shots of Johnnie Walker Blue, who says, “You’re in China, you should at least learn to speak Chinese,” except for meeting (or worse, befriending) a sanctimonious foreigner who speaks fluent Mandarin and couldn’t be more condescending about it.
I’ve come across certain expats fluent in Mandarin who inevitably converse with the waitress in Chinese and pause frequently to cast a frown of disdain upon their laowai companions whose tongues are balled up in a knot. The sanctimonious message is clear: somehow, being able to speak Chinese makes them, the fluent expat, honorary Chinese. The fact is being Chinese is a club just as exclusive as being French. No matter how much Chinese you can speak, you will never be Chinese. No matter how long you live in China, you will never be Chinese. The reason for this is simple: you aren’t Chinese.
This is by no means a cultural (or linguistic) phenomenon anomalous to China. It tickles me to hear Americans bitch about the immigrants who come to the U.S. without a peso or the ability to ¿Comprende Ingles? Their basis for argument appears to be, “When in Rome…” but in fact, immigrants aren’t tourists, for chrissakes. Bitching about it is equivalent to saying, “You’re riding a bus, you should at least know how to drive one.” Bullshit [bull-shit] (manzuipenfen 满嘴喷粪). Since when did the ability to drive a bus become a prerequisite for riding one?
As an advocate for laziness, I have to ask: why should any immigrant to the U.S. bother to learn English? At what point does the ability to speak English have anything to do with clean toilets or mopped floors or mowed lawns? Well, there’s big difference between “clean the toilets” and “mow the lawn”; that’s one good reason. Pedro just needs to know which one he’s supposed to do first. Is it inherent and incumbent upon Americans to learn Spanish if they want to communicate with the people they’ve hired to do the shitty jobs they can’t or don’t want to do? Don’t answer that.
To further elucidate this idea, remember that speaking a moderate amount of Chinese does not mean you are going to think in Chinese, so don’t worry. The mere acquisition of a few phrases and vocabulary words is not going to upset the gravitational axis of your Lazy Bastard brain. I just said English is the international lingua franca—the Ugly Esperanto—by default. Therefore, an immigrant to the U.S. should learn English only because it’s going to make his life that much easier. Why shouldn’t a lazy bastard do the same in Asia?
The Chinese had this figured out a long, long time ago, which is why they’re learning English from syndicated re-runs of Friends. Westerners aren’t cleaning toilets in Hangzhou, since the Chinese aren’t about to pay outsiders to do a terrible job of what they can do themselves. The China-bound expat is there for one reason, and it is the only thing the Chinese seem to care about: money. The Chinese are on a mission to master the lingua franca simply because it means more money in their pockets. Foreigners on the other hand, don’t really need to speak Chinese since they’re over here precisely because they don’t. The vast majority of Western foreigners in Asia, whether they’re teachers or bankers, are here because their native tongue is English. The trick is, learning Mandarin has only a marginal affect on the amount of money you can make—as an average, run-of-the-mill expat.
In places like the major coastal cities of Southeast China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, where Mandarin is the mother tongue, an overwhelming majority of people already speak a handful of English—enough to get the two of you through whatever transaction it is you’re trying to accomplish—in addition to whatever local dialect is used at home. English is a compulsory subject in public and private schools. A growing number of Chinese can speak at least three languages fluently. In many cases, your new acquaintance may be eager to practice their English skills, which makes being there all the more worthwhile. But generally speaking, when money is involved, it leads us to the first of the Lazy Bastard Axioms of Ease.
Never speak Mandarin when English is available.
Foreigners have been coming to China since the days of Marco Polo—who spoke four languages but not Chinese—the majority of which have spoken even less Mandarin than I do. While this is Standard Lazy Bastard Behavior and vigorously applauded by yours truly, the fact is most of us will have to apprehend some Mandarin to get by. You don’t have to be fluent but you do have to understand, at bare minimum, the context of what’s being said. Understanding what is said is more important than what you can say because you will not be able to speak passable Mandarin without a minimum of two to fifteen years (depending upon who you ask) in some sort of language institution. The thing is, in the most basic of transactions, for instance, buying a cup of coffee you will be asked many more questions than you could ever imagine answering. If you don’t know what you’ve been asked, how can you answer?
That said—the laziest of bastards should have a minimum of Mandarin for emergencies and of course, for convenience. Any Lazy Bastard worth his salt should be able to speak the four-semester, high school equivalent of the language of the country he lives in. If you live in Germany, you should at least be able to order a sandwich or ask for directions in German. Not because you are being culturally sensitive by making an effort to speak the local tongue; hell no, far from it. While it’s an appreciated gesture—a nice little show of respect and courage—the truth is that ordering a sandwich (and asking for directions) is something the Lazy Bastard is going to do frequently, so he might as well make it easy on everyone, particularly himself, and figure it out.
The Chinese say that a Westerner speaking Mandarin is akin to the sound of “barking dogs.” Of course, when I’m listening to the Chinese speak Chinese, it sounds to me like a shouting match. I can imagine how awful my Mandarin sounds to a native speaker but when I’m in McDonald’s and I say liang ge jixi hambaobao [lee-ahng guh cheesy hom-bow-bow], they think it’s fucking hilarious; but I get my two cheeseburgers. Many natives will compliment your attempt to speak Mandarin but they are truly thinking, “This lazy bastard is fucking retarded!” or “God, I hate foreigners!” It’s OK. Don’t sweat it. As a Westerner, you don’t need to worry about “face”. Assume that nothing stands in the way between the Chinese and money.
Do your best. Watch for the look of approval. Accept the pat on the back and get back to English as soon as possible. And in the process, you’ll just manage to combine laziness and being a bastard in a relatively poetic way.
Taking Taiwan as a personal point of reference and technically a part of China, I once read a quote on the Wikitravel website that there are three types of expatriates in Asia: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. Now we can add a sub-category to misfit: the asspat. Asspat is a newly minted portmanteau of asshole and expatriate, as in, “Why are most of the foreigners in Taiwan a bunch of asspats?” Well, the answer is not as simple as most of ‘em couldn’t make it in their home countries so they decided to try their luck in Taiwan, where a pulse and a college degree is all an asspat needs to make the nut.
Only missionaries and misfits come to Taiwan anymore, so it seems natural that the asspat culture would flourish. I can respect the missionaries for merely having an agenda and sticking to it. Their struggle, fortunately, is not shared by the rest of us. Struggle is the mortal enemy of Lazy Bastards everywhere. The asspats struggle with everything like a salmon going upstream. The difference between an asspat and a Lazy Bastard is that asspats may be bastards, but they’re rarely lazy. They’re too busy trying to find a job, learn the language, and worst of all, ingratiate themselves into society, which yours truly wouldn’t dream of.
Speaking Mandarin should be less of an ordeal and more of a joke. You will need every ounce of your sense of humor once you stop being a tourist and start being an asspat or a lazy bastard—you decide which. The greatest challenge to the Lazy Bastard sanity is going to be boredom. Since you will never speak more than a mouthful of Mandarin, you’re going to miss out on a lot of shit. What makes this OK is that everything the natives are talking about is stupid shit. Think about it. What do Americans talk about? Stupid shit. They complain about their jobs, or the weather, or their kids. At some point, it’s hardly worth the effort to drop a bunch of cash on classes which will do little if any good, just so you get your two cents in about the latest government scandal. When having conversations with locals, more often than not, the topics will be superficial. Where are you from? Why are you here? What is your job? How much do you make? If you want to have any sort of meaningful social interaction you’ll be faced with a choice. Either hang out with a bunch of other Lazy Bastards who speak English or make an effort to learn some—not a lot, but some—Mandarin. Arguably, the most useful verbs are to want and to have. To go, to eat, to drink, to buy, to think, to like, are also indispensable but I’m not telling you how to live your life.
The following are the ten things you have no choice but to learn how to say in Mandarin, the second Axiom of Ease…
Learn the Ten Sacred Phrases
[This is the part where we say something like, “To learn all the Axioms of Ease and The Ten Sacred Phrases, buy your copy of The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin, available November 7, 2012, from Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Book Nook, iTunes Apple Bookstore, Kobo, and Ingram Distribution print-on-demand.”]
 One of several words used to identify foreigners. See Glossary of Terms entry: laowai.
 See Glossary of Terms: kafei.
 The Chinese and English concepts of “face” are similar but differ in several semantic areas. The main difference is the English “face” doesn’t recognize a distinction between Chinese lian (moral character) and mianzi (social standing). In English you can lose face, save face, or gain face. By expanding “lose face” into “save face,” English developed independently from Chinese, which has many “lose face” collocations, but none literally meaning “save face.” However, for a person to maintain face is important in Chinese social relations because face = power and influence, which in turn affects the social standing. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority. Since Chinese lian is ethically absolute while mianzi is measured in a social context, losing the former is more significant. Losing lian is getting pinched at a love hotel with your transgender mistress. Losing mianzi is having to sell your condo because you’ve been taking a big hit at the casinos in Macau. The fact that Chinese has a lexical definition for losing face but not gaining face indicates that moral character has more weight than social standing. The moral of the story in other words: whatever it is you’re doing, don’t get caught. [Sourced in part from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_(sociological_concept)]
 No criminal record is also a “requirement” but I have serious doubts about its veracity.